They are billed as the highest honours in the London theatre calendar. So when the winners of the Olivier Awards are announced next week, all the beautiful people will be there. But Peter Wilkins, chairman of the Olivier Awards committee, has admitted, productions are nominated by theatre insiders who may not have seen them.
A complex voting procedure means West End producers and other members of the Society of London Theatre (Solt), who run the Oliviers, can add names to the shortlists drawn up by official selection panels.
Mr Wilkins said, in an interview with the theatrevoice.com audio website, that this may explain the surprise nomination for Helen Mirren as best actress in Mourning Becomes Electra at the National Theatre at the expense of her co-star Eve Best. Although Mirren's performance was dazzling and helped secure her the outstanding achievement prize at the South Bank Show awards, many believed Best stole the show when it opened in November. Best was chosen by the Theatre Critics' Circle as best actress at their awards last month. Mr Wilkins admitted that Best may have suffered because there was a particular problem with shows which opened late in the year as fewer people were likely to have seen them before the voting.
In those cases, it appeared that Solt members may make nominations on the basis of reputation because they expect good performances from known stars. "Eve Best gave a really magnificent performance," he said. "But I think fewer people saw the production and probably people voted for Helen Mirren because she's a known name. It's unfortunate. When you have 100 people sending in voting papers, how can you or any of us put our hand on heart and say those people saw that production and voted for Mirren?"
David Benedict, the interviewer, said there had been cases before which had puzzled observers and suggested award horse-trading. In 1999, the award for best choreography went to Simon McBurney when the musical Chicago had been expected to win. But, Mr Benedict suggested, McBurney had taken the choreography award because he could not be given best director; everybody wanted Richard Eyre to take that honour for King Lear.
Mr Wilkins said the selection process began with a member of the Solt "who was in no way involved in that particular production" proposing it. It then needed to be seconded by another member of the society who had not been involved in the show, adding up to 80 or so recommended productions.
The shows are then seen by independent panellists, four professionals from casting, or radio or television production but not directly in theatre, and four lay theatre enthusiasts who submitted reviews. They draw up provisional "long shortlists" with the leaders of Solt. The panellists choose the winners from shortlists where they can be outvoted by producers with vested interests.
Mr Benedict, a theatre critic, said yesterday: "Theatre is ill-served by this strangely hazy process. The system rewards favourites rather than being real recognition of true worth."
The winners will be announced at the Hilton hotel, in Park Lane, central London, a week tomorrow.